The expression “rolling coal” may make you stop and scratch your head unless you’ve heard it before. To “roll coal” means to belch black smoke from an altered diesel engine in order to upset or intimidate others, such as bicyclists, walkers, joggers, or those who drive hybrid vehicles. Some drivers do it to appear cool, politically radical, or even to target police officers.
For years, researchers and vehicle manufacturers have worked hard to produce a clean diesel engine. Remember the Volkswagen case involving diesel emissions, where tests to determine harmful emissions had been cheated? “Rolling coal” is the opposite of trying to “drive clean” with a diesel engine.
How Does a Person “Roll Coal?”
To do so, you must tamper with, disable, or override a vehicle’s emission controls, which is bad for the environment as well as unsafe. It’s also against the federal Clean Air Act to tamper with emission controls.
The executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, Allen Schaeffer, said that his group was in favor of the new law. Why? For one thing, “Nobody wants to see a black puff of smoke coming out of any vehicle,” Schaeffer said. “It’s a very small fraction of a universe of people who do this, but it’s not representative of the current world of diesel technology that people have worked so hard to make clean.”
It’s already illegal in New Jersey to engage in this practice, where you can be fined up to $5,000. “Rolling coal” is generally a problem with personal pickup trucks, not with commercial vehicles such as tractor-trailers. A state assemblyman in New Jersey, Tim Eustace, experienced being swallowed up by a cloud of black smoke emitted by a pickup truck on the NJ Turnpike. His comment was, “Momentarily, you can’t see anything. It’s terrifying.”
Why the New Law?
“Rolling coal” is more than an annoyance that dirties our air. It’s a real health risk for those with breathing problems, such as those with asthma. Imagine biking or jogging and having some pickup truck driver “roll coal” at you when you are breathing deeply from exertion. It can create serious health risks.
Diesel fuel is made from petroleum, the same as gasoline is. It is less expensive to produce but, until the advent of clean diesel, burning it produced more pollutants. “Rolling coal” pours these pollutants into the air we all breathe.
Exposure to diesel exhaust is associated with elevated lung cancer rates. Long-term exposure to diesel exhaust or smoke can also create various chronic respiratory problems. If you suffer from asthma, heart disease, emphysema, or significant allergies, your problems can be worsened by exposure to diesel exhaust. Kim Lamphier, of the organization Bike Maryland, made the point that, “For people with asthma who cycle, [rolling coal] can be a lethally dangerous combination.”
According to the bill recently signed by Gov. Hogan, if you “roll coal” once the new law goes into effect, you can be fined up to $500. The ban on this practice is not applicable to a normal visible discharge of diesel exhaust during acceleration, to commercial vehicles that weigh 5 tons or more, or to construction site vehicles.
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